I have been trying to steer away from bad science news in an effort to safeguard my stomach lining. However, I completely failed a couple of weeks ago when an especially improbably headline struck me. According to the Daily Mail, eating broccoli-based yogurt (?!) could curb the rise of bowel cancer. I couldn’t help but investigate.
The Mail article refers to an (excellent) 2017 Nature Biomedical Engineering paper which contains some truly ground-breaking work in the field of cancer prevention. Researchers from the University Of Singapore engineered a strain of bacteria that is usually present in the human gut (part of the intestinal flora, also known as “good bacteria”) to produce a specific enzyme called myrosinase. Myrosinase converts glucosinolate, a compound found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, sprouts etc, into sulphoraphane. In turn, sulphoraphane is a well known anti-cancer compound, which has been shown in a variety of studies (including this one) to kill colorectal cancer cells.The idea is that colorectal cancer patients or people at high risk of developing colorectal cancer could be given a form of the bacteria (it sounds gross, but as the Daily Mail astutely points out there are live bacteria in yogurt) and then be fed cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli. The glucosinolate from the broccoli would then be transformed into sulphoraphane by the bacteria in the gut, which would then start killing cancer cells. What’s more, the special anti-cancer bacteria express a special protein that means they will find cancer cells in the gut and attach themselves to it like a magnet finding pieces of metal. This means that their activity is specifically targeted to the cancer cells, making them even more effective.
For once the Daily Mail is right – this is truly exciting and ground-breaking work which could make a huge difference to patient’s lives. Colorectal cancer is on the rise among the young (mostly due to modern changes in diet) and remains one of the key health concerns in the over-50, which means that hundreds of thousands of people around the world could benefit from this discovery. There are, however, two key concerns in the way this news has been reported. First of all, anyone reading the Daily Mail and being subjected to their never-ending stream of pseudo-scientific claims probably won’t have taken this seriously. In other words, the Mail and newspapers of that type are very much the boy who cried wolf, and could never get anyone to believe him once the big news actually came. Secondly, the coverage of this specific article was very confusing, especially if one only reads the headlines. Whoever wrote the headline and the little blurb underneath seems to imply that the yogurt in question was somehow made with broccoli (now, that’s gross). How is it that one of the world’s leading newspapers can’t cover this exciting and wonderfully ingenious piece of science in a clear and accessible way is a mystery to me.
Nevertheless, if you read popular newspapers you probably have it covered for this week as this is the science you should have heard about.